Magazine article The Progressive

'Syria Is Our Mother': When Doors Are Open, Refugees Find Safety and Acceptance

Magazine article The Progressive

'Syria Is Our Mother': When Doors Are Open, Refugees Find Safety and Acceptance

Article excerpt

Before the Syrian city of Homs became known as the "capital of the revolution," Ahmad Youssef called it home. Married at age fifteen, he and his wife had eight children. "We were very happy living there. Everything was free, from schooling to medical. Living costs were cheap."

That changed in March 2011, when protests began in Homs against the governor at the time. "There was a lot of corruption," says Youssef. "If you applied for water or electricity or a new home, he wouldn't give permits. You would have to pay a bribe."

Youssef, who lived less than a mile from Clock Square where government forces launched a deadly assault on protesters in April 2011, supported calls for the governor to resign, but did not join in the protests. Within months, he says, there were "random bombings and explosions. We used to hear explosions at night, and heard other areas in Homs being bombed."

The conflict reached his family's doorstep in October 2011, when open warfare prevented Youssef from returning home after a trip abroad. "I was two miles away," he recalls. "I could hear gunfire. I called five taxi drivers and no one would pick me up. I was scared for my family."

And so Youssef's family decided to flee, as his neighbors and cousins had already done. They jammed into two cars, along with his sister's family of four, and drove to Jordan. They told military personnel at checkpoints on the road south they were going to visit cousins. "We took just our clothes, identification, and money. We left everything else behind. We left our hearts back home in Homs."

Speaking from his new home in Toledo, Ohio, Youssef begins to cry. "Syria is our mother. We miss the soil of Syria, the aroma of Syria, the water of Syria. We hope to return when it is peaceful. It will take a long time before it gets back to the old ways."

Youssef tells his story through translator Corine Dehabey. She is the Toledo director of the refugee-service organization US Together, an affiliate of the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. Since March 2015, fifty-eight Syrians have landed in the Great Lakes city. They've journeyed from Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, which host most of the 4.8 million Syrians who've been registered by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees since 2012.

Dehabey is an immigrant from Syria as well. Her father was American, and she moved to Toledo as a teenager in 1978. She returned to Damascus in 2000 and left months before the uprising broke out. "The whole war was shocking to us in Syria," she says. "We never noticed anything unusual. Syria was a very comfortable country to live in. In addition to free education and health care, the cost of living was low-housing, food, even school supplies."

Most refugees "have a honeymoon stage," says Dehabey, but culture shock hits as they struggle with language and customs and become "overwhelmed with all the documentation and paperwork." The refugees come from all over Syria--Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, and Daraa, the city where the revolt began. Many refugees are highly educated professionals--engineers as well as business owners, trades people, and farmers.

Ghassan, who owned a restaurant in Damascus before escaping in May 2013 with his wife, Miriam, and two adult children, also arrived in Toledo in late 2015. (The names are pseudonyms, to protect their safety). He did not support the anti-government protests in Syria, and is grateful to be in the United States. "We didn't expect to be treated with dignity and respect," he says. But after two months, Ghassan was fretting because his landlord was raising their rent, and "everything is

so expensive."

Both families also mentioned the cash assistance they get from the government barely covers rent and utilities. The biggest challenge for Ghassan is learning English, which he says "is going to take a long time." But he's mastered a rule of modern American society: "If you don't work, you don't eat. …

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